The Ancient Modern
A Reaction to the Recently Televised Self-Surgery / Joshua Alan Sturgill
You might have seen the video—it went viral with millions of views—of the heart surgeon who performed a heart transplant on himself in front of a classroom of medical students at a prestigious university.
I was so intrigued (and not a little bit horrified) by watching the video, that I did a little background research on the doctor. I wanted to know what he was thinking, and why he thought the removal of his own heart was something worth risking. I am not yet satisfied with what I found. But I’m trying to be objective.
If you don’t know the story, here it is in brief: apparently, he was quite brilliant—genius-level IQ—and wanted to be a surgeon since early in his life. When he entered medical school, his specialization was nutrition, and he was known to have a very holistic approach. He studied how food, sleep, exercise and emotional balance affect the various organs of the body. And he wrote several studies on how each organ effects the others. I found a few of these studies in online journals.
The conclusion he reached after years of research is absolutely intriguing for its bluntness as well as its impact on his career. He came to a basic premise that the heart is both the most inefficient and least complicated organ in the human body. Simply put: the heart does a minimal job and does it poorly.
True or not, this is what he came to believe, and he did quite a bit of experimenting and testing to prove his theory. He has been quoted variously as saying, “the heart is a very ineffective pump;” “the heart does for the body what hydraulics do for machines;” and “the heart is the easiest organ to replace, and the benefit of replacing the heart with a more durable device will increase length and quality of life.”
There was some resistance to his conclusions from the fringes of the medical profession, but he became generally accepted by the mainstream. Some of those who opposed him (at the time, these discussions happened only in obscure publications) insisted that the heart was not a pump, and that its full import for the human organism was only now beginning to be known. Some of the more radical theories claimed that the heart is as much or more important than the brain for consciousness and cognition.
But these discussions were pushed aside and became a matter of cognitive science—not a medical, but a philosophical and neurological matter. Meanwhile the center, and apparently well-funded, research focused on the global increase in heart disease and heart-related deaths and the need for an immediate and widely accessible solution. The idea focuses on ending the problem by removing the offending organ altogether. Once the epidemic is under control, other possible functions of the heart can be debated.
So, while still a medical student himself, he had begun to plan a surgical theater for self-operation, using adjustable mirrors and a minimal amount of equipment. Simultaneously, he was investigating bio-compatible batteries and power supplies. A pump, no matter how advanced, can function only as long as its source of power. So he worked on plans and patents for making a battery that would, at least in theory, never need replacing.
I don’t know if the students in his class were prepared for what they were going to see that day. But the surgeon had invited the media. The whole operation lasted 5 hours—longer than a typical heart transplant, but still an absolutely remarkable display of concentration and endurance. There is a more or less “official” recording of the surgery, but the video most have seen is an edited cell-phone recording done by a student on the first or second row of the class who posted on YouTube within hours of the event.
And, as we saw, he was lecturing while operating on himself. He described history and techniques, new tools, his preferred temperature and lighting for performing medical procedures, and the research behind the heart-battery inside the heart-pump. I didn’t understand it completely, but it seems like the battery uses the body’s own movement to keep itself charged—somewhat in the manner of a self-winding watch. At the end, which is difficult to see, he is attached the pump, removed the cross-clamp and the retractor and sewed his own stitches.
Many people have asked what he did with his heart. I haven’t heard a definite answer on this. But several people said he simply threw it away—which I would guess to be some kind of political or social statement in the way of “none of us will be needing these anymore.” But this is merely conjecture.
Many people who didn’t want to (or couldn’t stomach) viewing the video of the surgery have been following the subsequent interviews. There are a lot of interviews. He’s become an instant celebrity, and for good reason. He’s articulate and handsome—he looks made-for-television—and you can’t help but at least agree with his logic, even if you dismiss his premises. He never apologizes—either for the scandal he caused for the university or for the accusations of ethical violations leveled against him. I’m surprised, but no one seems to be upset that he posted such a graphic video for anyone to watch, including children. Though I did hear that some legal entities have threatened to sue for malpractice (of some kind). He doesn’t flinch.
Of all these things, what I find most interesting is the way he claims to have “truly inaugurated the cybergenic age” beginning with “the simplest and most primitive organ of the human body.” He says it’s only a matter of time before we are able to replace all the other organs—though some are obsolete anyway and will simply be discarded—and eventually we will “replace or supplement” the brain itself. His slogan has been “consciousness is complexity”—meaning that thought, feeling, personality is all an illusion created by the “vast and fast computing power” of the brain.
No one had heard of him, but now his ideas are being discussed everywhere. The media say he’s daring and courageous. One writer for the Associated Press said, “the self-transplant of a human heart is a history-altering event comparable to the invention of gun powder, Columbus’ discovery of the New world, or the moon landing.”
In fact, I want to quote that AP article more fully, so I’ll give it the final word here, and you can think about whether you agree:
…all it took was one man willing to squarely face the limitations of his own body and replace what was broken. What some would have considered an unthinkable act was done simply and logically and with only beneficial results.
What does this mean for us? It means we have reached the end of the humanity we thought we knew. Early in our biological history we needed hearts, but evolution brought us the brain. Now the brain has brought us immortality. This is a frightening moment. Everything we have created—culture, art, religion, science—as all been done in response to our mortality. What will we do when life doesn’t end, and death has become a meaningless word?
We can now clearly follow the Future. We will not need God, philosophy, psychology—or, at the very least, our relationship to these things will be forever changed. Fewer and fewer things will be unknown to us. We are at a moment when we will begin to push back our limits, expand our explorations, and consider possibilities of human expression we would never have dared to consider before.
Where will we go? What will we become? Imagine a world of immortal beings unconfined to their planet of origin. The universe can now truly said to be ours.
I find it all a little bit uncomfortable. But it will take me some time to understand my reaction. Maybe what’s really shocking is that it isn’t very shocking?